IMAGE: The small crowd at the April 27 city council tax rate and budget hearings. Photo by Bill Brown.
GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
Takoma Park councilmember Fred Schultz summed up whole situation. He said “I work on the assumption that people don’t want their taxes to go up. All of us up here want to be able to go in that direction.” But, he said, all year he and the other council members have constituents getting in touch with them, “asking for things they want us to do. New programs and laws such as the city Safe Grow pesticide ban, and curbside compost collection have costs, he said.
As a result, “we feel a little bit like taffy getting pulled in two directions.” said Schultz.
Nobody asks the council members for fewer police officers or neighborhood parks. And, it’s “always somebody else’s ox that needs to be gored.”
“If you don’t want property taxes to go up, think of that the next time you come up with a bright idea of what you’d like the city to do.” he quipped.
Unfortunately, the bright-idealists are usually not the same people as the anti-taxistas. Worse, the over-taxed only emerge from their caves at budget season, leaving the rest of the year to the over-enthusiastic.
This dynamic forces the city manager to don the black hat once a year – in the eyes of the anti-taxistas. Every spring she or he is forced to come up with a budget that takes care of all the staff and programs already in place – and pays for all the new ones dreamed up by bright-bulb constituents and supported by the council. Because votes.
A Committee on the Environment member asks for more funding of environmental projects. Photo by Bill Brown.
The two populations cross paths en-route to the microphone at April budget and tax-rate hearings. They alternate pleas to the council and the city manager for tax relief and pet programs.
This year, at the April 27 tax rate and budget hearings, the council and city manager heard from three citizens objecting to the tax raise and three citizens lobbying to keep or increase environmental program funding.
Another person objected to speed bump proliferation. “It’s like they are a family now, they are multiplying!”
AND THEN, There was Aurthor David Olson’s comments on the budget. Here’s a guy who studies and understands it more than just about any other resident.
In a nutshell, here’s what he said. Taxes went up, yet the proposed budget is SHORT by a freekin’ $2.8 million! The problem here is conservative budgeting! We’re too scared of underfunding stuff, so we pad all the budgets to be safe.
We end up with surplus money – which we didn’t need to take from taxpayers in the first place – but the city says “Oh, look, we found this money just lying around!” and they spend it on non-essentials.
What this joint needs, he said, is “moderate budgeting,” less padding, but not down to the bone.
Here’s most of his actual statement:
“So we’ve reached the promised land. City property has been reassessed; assessments have gone up; the budget shows a roughly $700 thousand increase in property tax revenue. Despite that, the budget shows general fund revenues of $29.8 million and general fund expenses of $32.6 million: a $2.8 million deficit.
In the past, more than one councilmember has offered that this isn’t as bad a problem as it appears, because even though we budget for deficits, we often end up with surpluses. I join with those who believe that’s still a problem. A surplus represents money unnecessarily taken from taxpayers; no responsible government wants to do that. It might somewhat acceptable if we used surpluses to pay down debt, but we tend to treat them as “found money” and spend them on non-essentials.
The cause of the difference between our budgets and our actual results is conservative budgeting. Our actual revenues are typically greater than budgeted; our actual expenses are typically less than budgeted.
The starkest example of conservative budgeting this year is income tax. The economy is improving; employment and wages are going up, as the city’s own payroll shows. The state has new income tax procedures expected to increase payments to the city. Efforts to cut the state income tax have (so far) gone nowhere, and even if successful would not necessarily affect the county tax of which the city receives a portion. Despite all that, while about $3.15 million was budgeted for income tax revenue this year and $3.45 million is now projected to be received, next year’s income tax revenue remains at this year’s $3.15 million budgeted figure.”
That “bump” in projected income tax revenues is a one-time “oops” payment from the state for mis-calucating the city’s share of past income taxes. “That said,” said Olson ” projecting income tax revenue to be flat seems overly conservative to me. (FY17 budget, page 19, income tax revenue: $3,153,311 adopted FY16; $3,150,000 proposed FY17.)
Olsen went on.
While we think of Takoma Park as a progressive city, I don’t want to go from conservative budgeting, based on what we fear will happen, to progressive budgeting, based on what we hope will happen. I want to see moderate budgeting, based on what we reasonably expect will happen. I hope the council will budget for income tax revenue next year at this year’s expected level as a meaningful first step toward moderate budgeting.”
Those are “fiscal years” which start July 1, in case you care. We refuse to put little “FY”s in front of all the dates and to use other “insider” budget terms because if readers don’t know what it means, they will lose interest. Which is why nobody but Arthur David Olson knows what’s in the budget.
City council enjoys a break during the April 28 meeting and hearings. Photo by Bill Brown.
Plastic Bag ban
The work session on a proposed plastic bag ban got into small details. For example, whether to ban bags based on types of bags or how the bags are used? They leaned toward basing it on how the bags are used. It boiled down to bags in the aisles – ok. bags at the check-out counter – not ok. So, shoppers could load up a plastic bag with green-beans in the produce section, but would not get a plastic bag to carry them home in at the register.
There was a lot of discussion about how to give the farmer’s market a pass – either by specifically exempting them, or exempting a type of usage that would apply to them. Councilmember Tim Male said if it came down to specifically exempting the farmer’s market, he would vote against it.
The council also had a work session on creating a Takoma Junction Redevelopment Process Committee. This was requested of the council by the Takoma Junction development company, Neighborhood Development Company. They want a committee of residents to help them reach other residents, get them to meetings and get their feedback.
The council went forward with the staff suggestion to make it a seven-person committee, a member from each ward, as long as it is “not a decision-making body,” said council member Schultz.
Councilmember Rizzy Qureshi, phoning in from a Florida location, tried to make a lengthy comment but an increasingly bad connection made it sound like the waves were engulfing his beach chair.
Councilmember Male said “He said he agrees with me.”
This sign answers any questions about how the TPSS Co-op, the Takoma Junction anchor store feels about how negotiations with the developer are going.
At this week’s meeting, she said that that Friday the county will launch a website about Zika. Sounds like it will urge county residents to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. The county, said city manager Suzanne Ludlow, will use up a lot of it’s emergency budget for this year printing up materials in Spanish. There is a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the region – and Zika is present in many of their home countries.
The city department of public works will look at city-owned storm-water sites where water may collect, said Ludlow.
Curiously, she did not mention that Takoma Park is host to the very mosquito species that is capable of spreading Zika virus, Aedes aegypti. They are an invasive species that has been here since 1995. See last February’s Voice article. The article was written before there was a definite link found between Zika and birth defects.
We suggest Dear Readers pay close attention to this and take seriously the measures to eliminate possible breeding grounds.
The city manager and council addressed a citizen’s comment – from Paul Who-Does-Not-Want-His-Last-Name-In-Print – that he’d like to see citizen’s comments addressed from the dais at each meeting.
Oh, but we do, they said. We often respond in the Council Comments and City Manager Comments sessions following the Citizen Comments part of the agenda. AND, we follow up with e-mails and other contact. We don’t want to take any time away from citizens by answering them during Citizen Comments, they said.
That’s true, but OUR advice to the council is that it would be a good idea to explain that with a few words before each citizen comments session. People who normally have better things to do than hang out at city council meetings can get the wrong impression when they see the council and staff sit there like a line of silent sphinxes.
The city manager has mentioned the Zika virus a few times. That’s a virus spread by mosquitoes that has mild symptoms, but can cause birth defects if contracted by pregnant women.
* the “roughly $700,000 increase in property tax revenue” comes from:
$12,284,022 FY17 proposed (FY17 budget, page 19)
$11,371,340 FY16 adopted (FY17 budget, page 19)
$ 912,682 difference of the above two
$ 200,000 city manager’s proposed reduction in budgeted FY17 property tax revenue, presented on 4/20/2016
$ 712,682 balance
* the $29.8 million and $32.6 million figures come from the FY17 budget, page 16; $2.8 million is the difference
Olson also had a question about s a new expense, at least $1.5 million*, for sidewalk “retrofitting” (bringing it up to ADA compliance). It is shown in the budget, says Olson as continuing, at half a million dollars a year, through at least 2021. Last year’s budget showed the retrofitting ending in 2018, he says.
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